Final Fantasy X - PS2 - Review
Final Fantasy X has been released for U.S. audiences, and as always, there is no shortage of interest and hype surrounding the highly-anticipated 10th installation to the series. The first Final Fantasy to be released for the Playstation 2 entertainment system, we've been somewhat cruelly teased with endless screens and information for months. For a while it seemed the day would never come, and I admit, the first few minutes I held the case in my hand, I wondered if it would disappear. Nevertheless, the most important thing we all needed to know is: "Well.... Is it really that good? Will they keep their hordes of fans coming back for more?" My answer, after a particularly sleep-deprived period of time, is a resounding YES!
Our story is set thusly: As the story begins, we are introduced to this optimistic Tidus, star Blitzball player, right before his tournament in Zanarkand. Yet, it is not long before fate will cast Tidus into a role beyond his imagination, and into a land 1,000 years ahead of his time. Now, the proverbial "stranger in a strange land," Tidus must find a place for himself in a world which knows Zanarkand only as a myth. In this new place, he meets new companions and allies, including Yuna, a beautiful and mild-mannered summoner in training. Together, they hold the key to saving the world.
Let me get this out of the way immediately: The first hour or so of the game is mostly cinematic, and while some gamers won't notice this, other less patient ones may panic and think FFX will be an interactive movie. Have no fear! There's plenty of action and random battles to be had! Perhaps the first thing veteran players of the series will notice about FFX is the relatively linear progression of the title. However, those players who think linear means "dull" or "restrictive" might be appeased somewhat to know that all of those wonderful side quests and secret surprises are still in full force. While the game rounds out at about 40-some hours if playing with the sole intention of completing the game, you can extend that play-time significantly with a number of side quests and mini games. I'll get more into these aspects later, but now onto the meat of the gameplay.
The gem of a battle system, while retaining many familiar elements, adds some new facets to gameplay. Sure, you still have physical attacks, magic (both white and black), super-attacks (now called Overdrive), and Aeons as summoned characters. What makes FFX different is that each character starts out with a particular main trait or focus. For instance, Yuna is our summoner,Lulu is the black magic caster, and Kimarhi has a trait stealing ability(sound familiar?). Wakka is especially good at flying monsters because of his Blitzball hurling attack and Auron's long history comes into play with many different talents that he brings to your party. This may sound absolutely daunting to arrange at first if you've had to commit to your party pre-battle in the past. However, the beauty of it is that this time, you don't have to determine your 3 battle participants previous to battle. Instead, you may switch out characters mid-battle, and even better, you don't have to lose a turn doing it. Also, while you do use weapons and armor in FFX, their role is lesser. The major factor in choosing and improving weapons is to choose one imbued with special powers or characteristics. This is especially handy in the event that you encounter a certain monster that is weak to certain effects. Because you can change weapons mid-battle, just as you can party members, this also by-passes that fear that you're not going to have the right weapon equipped before you head into battle.
Another major difference is the role of summons in FFX. Aeons are spirits of once powerful beings which willingly join with summoners. While players were able to summon during battle, usually the summon was temporary. In the case of Yuna's Aeons, once summoned, all players leave the playfield and the Aeon takes it over from there. In assuming this role, Aeons were also given more battle abilities, assuming more of an actual player role, rather than a glorified magic spell. Returning to the list of familiar favorites are Bahamut, Ifrit (who's looking rather wolf-like in FFX), and Shiva. In the beginning of the game, you probably won't use your Aeons as much as you might expect, but by the end of the game they will become integral.
Lastly, FFX keeps character point/experience levels rewarding, and also presents it with quite a new twist. Just when you thought no one could come up with anything new, we're introduced to the sphere grid. Amongst the many things you will collect at the conclusion of a battle, you will also collect different spheres and accrue sphere levels. Sphere levels will enable your character to utilize the Sphere Grid, an arcane looking board with a number of skills and abilities. Your character will be able to move along pre-drawn paths on the Grid - some of which remain empty until you activate them. Higher abilities are locked behind "level" locks until you gain enough experience to progress. The number of moves you are allowed to make is determined by your Sphere Level. From where your character is positioned, they can activate the particular nodes they have a sphere for. Spheres you stand on or one move in any direction can be activated. For example, if you would like to activate a magic defense sphere for Lulu, you would move to the position and then activate the node by using a mana sphere. I know - it sounds difficult, but really, it's quite painless once you get started. It's just a matter of mapping out what direction you would like to go with your character and making your way to those particular abilities.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who was a bit caught off guard by the news that the main mini-game (not to mention a good portion of our lead male's life) is composed of a little game called Blitzball. The best way to describe how Blitzball works is a mostly turn-based game of water-soccer. While you can control your lead character manually, most of the time you will probably only take action when the ball holder confronts opposing players. Using stats, you will need to decide whether you can overcome your opponents to pass, shoot, or continue your progress across the playfield. You won't get your first real chance at the game until a couple hours into the game, but once you progress past the first big tournament, you will then be allowed to play at save points. From here, you can recruit the characters with the stats that will help you win.
Along with various side quests, you can also try your hand at taming and racing chocobos. While never really necessary to complete, doing such activities can reap rewards, both great and small, for your party.
The graphical aspects of FFX are, as we've come to expect, exemplary. First of all, the entire presentation of the game includes and unmistakable Asian influence, and at times Polynesian as well. You need only to look at Yuna's kimono inspired wardrobe or some of the smaller island villages to see these cultural influences. The destructive power of the water Sin uses is reminiscent of Tsunami - the most deadly forces of nature to threaten the history of these island cultures. Mannerisms are also familiar, with the distinctive bow of respect marking some of the character's more physical gestures. Cut-scenes have that trademark Squaresoft beauty - brining back vividly the accomplishments of the recent feature-length The Spirits Within.
Tetsuya Nomura continues in his tradition of creating characters who are both easy on the eyes and incredibly enigmatic. Tidus, a character who has a perpetual feel of youth and innocence, stands out markedly from past leading males, while Yuna maintains a playful innocence as seen in characters like Rinoa in FFVIII. Auron takes the reigns as the mysterious guardian with his high collar and scarred right eye, and Wakka is the BFG of the group. Lastly, Lulu's features subtly remind me of the look of a character I greatly enjoyed in The Bouncer, Kaldea Orchid, but in this case. she's got more of a corseted and somewhat (for the lack of a better term) gothic look. But I can go on all day about Mr. Nomura's art - you'll just have to see it for yourself.
It's no secret I'm a game music aficionado, no doubt a result of my appreciation of music as a whole. Yes, I'll fully admit it, I have the orchestrated FFVIII soundtrack in my 20-CD changer in my car. There's a reason for this - it's really that good. There's nothing like a good round of Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec every once in a while - it certainly beats the both popular and notoriously overused and overrated Carmina Burana. Hence, should it have surprised me at all that the FFX score is equally well-done? Actually, there were a couple surprises in there - namely a few tracks that were a bit more techno than I've experienced in an FF title. This was especially noticeable in the introduction during Tidus' Blitzball game. This new flavor is probably due to the fact that joining Nobuo Uematsu on the FFX soundtrack are Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamauzu. As in the past, the music can inspire to battle, or tears. While some tracks are admittedly not as powerful as others, due to where they are meant to be accompaniment, the entire score maintains the high musical standards I've come to expect.
When all is said and done (and there's a lot to be said and done, believe me), Final Fantasy X does more than live up to the "hype" that has surrounded Final Fantasy as a series. In the same way I admired Mr. Sakaguchi's The Spirits Within for bringing perhaps unfamiliar elements of Asian culture and beliefs to an Western audience, I admire Final Fantasy X's emotional and spiritual depth. There is never a time that we can't feel the pain and the struggles of our heroes, and like Blitzball helps the people of Spira forget their troubles, I owe FFX the same respect for helping me to lose myself into a pleasurable experience in our world.
FFX maintains the series' high standards for cerebral and challenging RPG gameplay, while managing to add yet more interesting ingredients to the mix. The game includes a great deal more cinematic content than in the past, but it has never been the sole purpose of this series to merely be a hack and slash: It has always made storytelling a priority. Also, the game is more linear than past players may be expecting, but there are still plenty of side-quests and mini-games to appease those who require more than just the shortest line from point A (being the beginning) to point B (the end).
Graphically, ah yes, and where would we be in a Final Fantasy review without a graphics review? As always, Squaresoft knows how to inspire awe in us when it comes to visuals - FFX being most like FFVIII. Cultural influences and a good use of color make this game a visual masterpiece. Not to mention Tetsuya Nomura and his par excellence in character design.
Add this soundtrack to my list right now. I'm a big fan of game music, and have always felt that Squaresoft in particular has raised the bar for game music. With the same high-quality pieces that will no doubt translate well into orchestrated renditions, and some surprising new twists, the music of FFX excels. Voice overs are a welcome addition - for the first time in the series.
If it's one thing that can be said for the difficulty levels in FF titles, it's that these games are not for those you just want to pick up and slash. While many elements in FFX have become more user friendly, there is still the necessity to think of every move in an almost chess-like fashion to really excel.
Take a good thing and keep making it better. FFX takes a much lighter turn in this installment, without losing it's surreal and deeper meanings. I've never known one of these games not to explore the more metaphysical and spiritual side of human (and non-human) existence in a way that makes it more of a thinking-gamers RPG. In addition, FFX continues to surprise with new mini-games (like the unique Blitzball) and innovative additions to the battle system.
Veteran or newcomer, playing Final Fantasy X may very well ruin many of your other game experiences. Once you've had a taste of the exquisite beauty, solid battle system, and intelligent story and character development, you may never be able to accept less.